Who are Europe’s top marksmen?

March 28, 2009

Marc Janko

Last season Manchester United‘s Cristiano Ronaldo took no prisoners as he slotted, slammed and stroked 31 goals past the Premiership‘s goalkeepers. In doing so, he became the first winger in history to earn the European Golden Shoe for the continent’s top goal scorer in 2007-8. This season form and fitness have contrived to take the Portuguese winger out of the race to retain his coveted title – so who are the main contenders to usurp his thrown?

German Bundesliga – Grafite

In reality, Grafite currently shares top spot in the Bundesliga scoring charts with Vedad Ibišević, the Bosnian striker who led newly promoted 1899 Hoffenheim to the summit of German football before rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament to prematurely end his season. So VfL Wolfsburg‘s Brazilian striker has had his chance to shine, becoming one of European football’s hottest properties with 18 goals. Wolfsburg are one of four sides in contention for this season’s domestic title, and Grafite seems sure to profit from former Bayern Munich coach Felix Magath‘s tight regime. After all, Grafite knows exactly what it takes to slay Wolfsburg’s title rival giants – he was part of the São Paulo side that beat Liverpool in the 2005 FIFA Club World Championship.

Italian Serie A – Zlatan Ibrahimović and Marco Di Vaio

Head to head at the top of Serie A‘s scoring charts are Inter Milan legend Zlatan Ibrahimović and Bologna frontman Marco Di Vaio. While Zlatan needs no introductions (he was described by manager José Mourinho as the best player in the world earlier this season, and is certainly its highest paid), Di Vaio is one of football’s journeymen. In fact, at 32 Bologna is his ninth club – an ominous statistic, although his former employers have included such luminaries as Lazio, Juventus, Valencia and Monaco, so life at the game’s top table should come as nothing new to the Italian.

Spanish La Liga – Samuel Eto’o

Barcelona‘s Samuel Eto’o has to be a frontrunner for the Golden Shoe after 25 goals so far this season as the needle point of new coach Josep Guardiola‘s expansive brand of football. Interesting or unexpected? Well, no. But kudos to the Cameroonian striker for retaining his place after rumours of an exodus at Barcelona in the summer and for taking his goal tally at the club past the 100 mark this season, to 102 from just 135 league appearances.

French Ligue 1 – André-Pierre Gignac

Is it possible to sound more French? I suspect not… and André-Pierre Gignac is living up to the country’s history of producing extraordinary goal scorers with 18 this season. The 23-year-old has blossomed after replacing Bolton‘s Johan Elmander in the Toulouse team this season, earning a call up to the national side for the first time. Behind him in the scoring tables is Paris Saint-Germain‘s Guillaume Hoarau, who earned a move to the capital after a return of 28 goals last season with Le Havre.

The Premiership – Nicolas Anelka

Nicolas Anelka finally looks to have found his place in life at Chelsea under first Luiz Felipe Scolari and then Guus Hiddink. He has all the qualities of the perfect forward – speed, positioning and a fizzing right foot, even if he does appear to lack motivation on occasion. But with just 15 goals, he is hardly a contender for Ronaldo’s mantle, demonstrating the paucity of top strikers in the Premiership this season.

The Verdict

The likeliest winner from Europe’s five biggest leagues looks to be Samuel Eto’o as the first from any of the divisions to pass the 20 goal mark. But this season there may just be a small chance of one of the continent’s less illustrious leagues springing a surprise. Players in the so-called lesser leagues earn fewer points for every goal they score, so the last player to overcome this weighting system was Sporting Clube de Portugal‘s Mário Jardel (who went on to play for Bolton and contend for the separate title of the Premiership‘s most overweight player ever). This year, Red Bull Salzburg player Marc Janko will have to do even more by outscoring Eto’o in the Austrian Bundesliga to win the title. And he might just do it. Janko kicked off the season with five goals in two games and by December had scored 45. With only league goals counting, he will have to improve on a tally of 33 in 27 matches, although to date he has scored five hat tricks this season and four in one game as a second-half substitute against SCR Altach to help Salzburg win 4-3 and demonstrate that anything is possible.

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Farewell Pavel

February 27, 2009

NedvedAt the end of the season we will bid goodbye to one of football’s greatest ever exponents.  I would always argue that Zinedine Zidane‘s legacy deserves a place alongside Pele and Diego Maradona in the roll call of the game’s best ever players. But I would also say that Pavel Nedvěd is a better player than Zidane. Not a better footballer – Zidane could do things with a ball that would make Manchester United‘s Cristiano Ronaldo look like a chump. But in my opinion Nedvěd could exert his control over a match and lift his team almost physically in a way that Zidane never could.

A perfect example of the great Frenchman’s limitations was the 2006 World Cup final. Zidane poured so much of his heart and soul into that pitch that I half suspect even the Italian team wanted him to win. Every spectator knew they were watching the best and the most tragic moment of Zidane’s career – the natural born winner struggling to drag his team across the finish line. And, in the end, failing. The sorcerer turned thug and in the blink of an eye Zidane had simultaneously brought about his demise and cemented his legendary status in the game. France lost in a penalty shoot out, with Zidane both hero and villain.

Which is all very poetic. And I am not saying that had Nedvěd put on a blue shirt and run out for France that day he could have changed the result. However, while Zidane had a habit of making all the other players around him look inferior, Nedvěd has the canny knack of raising his entire team’s game. His great tragedy is that he has never won the major trophy he deserved – or even had the same chance Zidane was afforded to blow that major trophy (although to be fair Zidane won plenty).

Zidane played for Juventus in two Champions League finals, losing both. When the Frenchman defected to Real Madrid (where he finally claimed the trophy in his first season), his €41 million replacement from Lazio was instrumental in helping Juventus reach another dramatic European showdown against AC Milan in 2003. But unlike his predecessor, Nedvěd never got the chance to shine on one of the game’s biggest stages. The midfielder was suspended after picking up a decisive yellow card in the semi-finals, where Zidane’s new club Real Madrid were the victims.

Admittedly, the Czech does have one more chance – overturn Chelsea striker Didier Drogba‘s goal in Turin in the next fortnight and the dream is still alive. Yet I expect that won’t happen. Great players, much more than simply good ones, have a habit of being – at the last – undone.

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Javier Aguirre the man for Portsmouth?

February 18, 2009

aguirre_spain_soccer_do811David James has come out twice this week to voice his support for Sven-Göran Eriksson‘s candidature to be the new Portsmouth manager. James appears to be preoccupied with the idea of a former England manager taking the hot seat at the south coast club. But other than his status in a group of alumni that includes Glenn Hoddle and Steve McLaren (neither of whom, I note, have earned a vote of support from the former Liverpool goalkeeper), does Eriksson’s CV really match up to the job?

The Swede’s success has come almost exclusively at clubs with extravagant budgets, in particular at a Lazio backed by millionaire investor Sergio Cragnotti, who plunged some £274 million into the team to buy players like Pavel Nedvěd and Christian Vieri. At Manchester City, he spent a small fortune on a cluster of players including Elano, Valeri Bojinov, Benjani Mwaruwari and Gelson Fernandes – none of whom were able to acclimatise to the Premier League quickly enough or gel well enough to keep Eriksson in his job.

So rather than turn to a former England don, perhaps Portsmouth should be looking to one of Sven’s predecessors in his incumbent position at Mexico. Javier Aguirre led the Central American side to victories over Croatia and Ecuador as well as a creditible draw with Italy in the 2002 World Cup before a heartbreaking loss to rivals USA in the second round. But it is his subsequent achievements in club management that really stand out. On a shoe string budget Aquirre led unfashionable Spanish team Osasuna to a Champions League spot ahead of Juande RamosSevilla in 2006, before taking them to the UEFA Cup semi-finals a year later (ironically losing out to Sevilla).

A more recent but less successful spell with Atlético Madrid still secured the La Liga side a top four and Champions League place for the first time in 12 years. Yet despite setting a new record for goals scored at home, the Mexican has found himself deemed surplus to requirements at the Vicente Calderón. Atlético‘s loss could prove Portsmouth’s gain – even before losing his job, Aguirre announced his ‘dream’ to manage in the Premiership to ESPN programme, Futbol Picante. He may not be the flashy big name that David James has been dreaming of, but Aquirre could bring back to Portsmouth precisely what they have been missing since Harry Redknapp‘s defection to Tottenham – a voice of experience. Not of managing England, perhaps, but of taking little fancied football clubs to new heights.

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